How to successfully acquire, create, and manage important documents for your freelance business

Businessman Receives Document.

As a freelancer, you often serve as your own boss. For the creative personality, this can be incredibly freeing: you make your own schedule, choose your projects, and set your prices. However, handling certain core business functions — paperwork, documentation, and general organization — may not come as easily to you if you don’t already have a business background. And these functions are just as essential to freelance success as being a talented designer, a visionary creative, an effective communicator, or a versatile marketer.

Unless you plan to hire help to take certain tasks off your plate — an idea that has its merits as you grow your revenue — you’ll need to wear a lot of hats to make freelancing sustainable as a career. You will need to understand the legal and professional necessities of client interactions and build strategies for staying organized. Depending on your industry, you might need to maintain a professional license, register your business in order to pay taxes and handle finances, or even navigate local and national laws to gain permits and pitch projects to different clients.

Record-keeping and legal documents may not be as fun and exciting as the work that inspired you to take the freelance route, but the following tips and resources can help you build an achievable to-do list that will set you on the path to entrepreneurial success. From bringing your business idea to life — legally and officially — to acquiring and creating the essential documents you need to actually get to work and take on new projects, this guide will take you through the most common documents freelancers need to manage.

Documents you’ll need to acquire to launch your business


Your freelancing journey will likely begin with the legal formation of a business entity — even if you plan to do business under your own name. This business license will impact how you file income taxes, influence your ability to get business loans or a line of credit, and many other considerations for your new gig.

What you call your business will likely influence how you can market yourself or find new clients and customers. (Not to mention, it would be a shame to design your logo or write search ad copy only to find your preferred business name is taken!)

Along with the name and type of business you want to start, a license — and in some industries, you may need more than one — will help you cover some bases before you start providing services. Depending on the type of work you do and what your professional goals are, you may need various licenses, which will also need to be associated with the correct legal business entity to allow you to perform your work.

Although some freelancers — such as those practicing cosmetology — must acquire a business license, this step isn’t always necessary. Certain cities and states may also have licensing requirements, and you can check with your local government to determine yours. However, even if a business license isn’t required, it can still be helpful as a means of building business credit, developing a professional image, and protecting your personal property in the event of a lawsuit, among other benefits.

Business structure

Before you apply for a business license, you’ll need to pick the appropriate business structure for your freelancing gig. This decision is also part of the process of choosing a name and building a brand.

The most common business structure types include:

Professional certifications

Depending on your line of work, it may be beneficial or necessary for you to acquire a professional certification. If you are just starting out, a certification can be essential for proving you are an expert, specialist, or otherwise recognized in your field. Earning a certification can also be a great way to expand your resume or position yourself for a career change.

For example, a freelancer working in the field of remote IT support may need a generalized IT support certification, but may further benefit from also acquiring a cybersecurity certification if they decide to delve into that particular niche. It is important to keep in mind, however, that certifications often require a fee and regular renewals, and they are not all created equal. Research all potential certifications carefully before paying for a certification program, to ensure the program is credible.

Professional permits

The parameters for necessary permits vary widely depending on your local laws, and therefore it is important to be aware of what your field or occupation requires based on where your business is located. You may also find certain clients expect specific permits or want your help on a permitted project. This is a highly individual situation that requires open communication and some amount of research, depending on what you do.

To learn more, check out these resources for business licensing and professional certification:

Documents you’ll need to create and manage to grow your business.

Project proposals

Once you have all the documents required to start your freelance business, it’s time to begin building it. Assuming your marketing is on point and potential clients are calling, you will need to know how to create a project proposal. This is any sort of presentation you develop to demonstrate your vision for a project and outline necessary resources for its success. A proposal can help you demonstrate to new or prospective clients the value of your work, as well as ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding the expectations for a project before it is underway.

How to build a successful project proposal

Whether you present your proposal in person or in a virtual meeting, you will want to create a compelling presentation that shows you understand your client’s needs and have the expertise needed to solve them.

Regardless of the format you choose for your proposal, be sure to include these key elements to help you impress and connect with your clients:

Read these resources related to project proposals:

Client contracts and agreements

A potential customer turns into a client based on your solid project proposal, and now you need a contract. Client contracts not only keep everyone involved in the project accountable, but also help you stay organized, as they outline all the terms and expectations related to the project. For this reason, it is important to ensure that both you and the client have copies of any contracts or agreements.

How to write a freelance contract

The details of a client contract will depend on the nature of the work and the needs and expectations of all parties involved. However, at minimum, a good client contract should include the following:

Obtain signatures from all relevant parties and keep a digital copy of the signed document in a secure location. You can offer your clients a seamless signing experience — and make your life easier as well — by using an e-signature solution tailored to small businesses, such as Acrobat Pro DC or Adobe Sign.

It will also be important to consider additional legal documentation in some scenarios. For example, in some cases, cooperation may be more easily achieved by sharing details of your business operation to some degree. In such cases, it may be prudent to ask the client to sign an NDA.

Check out these additional resources related to client contracts:

Project deliverables

Once a project is underway, client and project management is key to success. It also may be something to adjust and develop over time to fit your workflow and client needs. Generally speaking, good communication with clients is paramount. To keep your projects on track, it’s also essential to put in place digital document workflows that help you manage your work and streamline the client review and approval process.

Here are some smart approaches to client and project management:

Check out these resources related to client and project management:

Billing and receipt of payment records

To freelance successfully, you will need to carefully manage documents relating to billing and payment.

Setting your rates

Before you even begin freelancing, you need to determine your rates. This can be a difficult decision to make and there is no way to magically find the perfect number. However, the following steps can help you zero in on a good general range:

Always ensure that you deliver excellent work to justify your rates and consequently build your reputation and your client base.


An invoice is an overview of the work you have provided and the payment you expect for these products or services. It is usually best to use a template to write an invoice. You can find invoice templates online, but they are also typically offered with office software. Once you’ve received a payment, you should create a receipt. Both you and the client should keep copies of invoices and receipts of payment.

Here are resources related to navigating payment as a freelancer:

Documents you’ll need to manage and file with the IRS

Tax management documents

Freelancers need to contend with many unique tax considerations. The specific processes will depend on unique factors such as your chosen business structure and where you live. The following information is primarily geared toward freelancers based in the United States.

Income tracking

First and foremost, as a freelancer, it is imperative that you carefully document your income. You can do this by keeping copies of invoices and receipts, as well as gradually inputting relevant information from these documents into a spreadsheet or online business management tool.

Quarterly vs. annual taxes

In most traditional workplaces, employees file taxes annually, as their tax liability is prepaid through withholdings. Freelancers, however, are typically required to both file taxes annually and pay estimated taxes quarterly.

Self-employment tax

In the United States, freelancers must calculate and file self-employment tax — consisting of Social Security and Medicare taxes — using Form 1040. The self-employment tax takes the place of similar withholdings for traditional employees.

Tax forms

Common tax documents that freelancers will need use include:

Deductions and write-offs

Write-offs — business expenses deducted for tax purposes — may apply when managing your taxes. Every freelancer’s situation is unique. However, generally speaking, you can write off an expense that is necessary for the pursuit of your income.

Common expenses that can be written-off by freelancers include:

Here is more help on tax management for freelancers:

Doing freelance or contract work can be an invigorating personal investment and a great way to grow your career. Although managing your freelance finances can feel intimidating, with the right resources, you can confidently pursue the freedom and success of managing your own business.